African-American Residents Recall the Challenges of Leaving Buxton, Iowa in the 1920s
In the early 1900s, Buxton, Iowa was a booming coal town with first class amenities for its residents. As the coal in Buxton, Iowa ran out in the mid-1920s, the town’s residents were forced to find work elsewhere. These former residents quickly found life outside of Buxton to be an unwelcome dose of reality for African-Americans. This segment from the "Searching for Buxton" documentary features accounts from former Buxton residents.
Simon Estes: The town's general store, frequented by both whites and blacks, has been described as one of the best of that time west of Chicago.
Buxton also had YMCA's, one with an indoor swimming pool, a reading room stocked with history books and out-of-town newspapers from as far away as New York City.
In a documentary about Buxton broadcast on Iowa PBS some 30 years ago, the now deceased Marjorie Brown talked about the extraordinarily good times blacks there enjoyed. Her father was a miner and then an engineer. Her mother was a choir director.
Marjorie Brown, Former Buxton Resident: I didn't know there was any other way to live. The black people had the ball team, the black people had the band, the black people had the hotel, the black people had the YMCA. In fact, Buxton was the only place in the world that had a dual building YMCA set up, one for the adults and one for the children. And I thought that was the way everybody in the world lived. When we think of lifestyle I can truthfully tell you I never in my life lived in a house where there wasn't a musical instrument, where there were not newspapers, where there were not books. I never ate at a bare table because polished tables hadn't come in style so it was tablecloths. I never lived in a house that was uncarpeted. That was our lifestyle and I wasn't alone. All of the youngsters that I played with, we all lived the same way.
But the good times in Buxton were drawing to a close by the mid-1920s. The coal deposits had been used up and the town's miners had to move to other communities to find work. Without mining there was no reason for the town to exist. It rapidly shut down and, as you have seen, all but disappeared.
Once they moved, Buxton's black residents were confronted with a harsh new reality, which was really the way of the world at that time, lower paying, often menial jobs and racial slights they had never known growing up in Buxton. Marjorie Brown's family moved to Cedar Rapids. She quickly learned that all the talents she had acquired in Buxton were not appreciated even a little there.
Brown: It was a brand new world. It was a brand new thing for me. I had to unlearn so much and then learn again. I had to unlearn that Marjorie was an important part of a community and learn again that she was second, third, fourth or unknown.
David Gradwohl was among those who conducted the interviews for the Iowa State University study.
Dr. David Gradwohl, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Iowa State University: When they moved to the larger communities, particularly the African-Americans, they did not have the same opportunities. There were people who had high school and college education and had been working in sorts of positions in Buxton that couldn't get those jobs. I think there were like teachers who became house cleaners when they moved into these other areas. We were just having a conversation at a Buxton Club meeting and a gentleman that I was talking to said, in Buxton we had our own lawyers, we had our own doctors and dentists and school teachers, and then we moved to Des Moines and stepped back 100 years. And that really stuck with me.
Estes: After Buxton's decline, Serge moved his family to another mining town, Bucknell, then a few years later to Des Moines. Only then as a teenager did Kathryn discover what was so commonplace at that time, segregation.
Kathryn Beverly, Former Buxton Resident: There was that one white family on that whole street and that is when I first became aware there was a difference.
Jason Madison, Buxton Descendant: So you learned that from your neighbors and your new friends?
Beverly: And the kids at school. They called you black and everything else sometimes they'd call you. I think that's the first fight I had was someone had done something to Geraldine, your grandmother, and of course I had to jump in because she was my youngest sister.
Both Kathryn and her kid sister Geraldine went on to graduate from college and have successful careers as teachers and both insist neither race nor racism has defined their lives. Still 70, even 80 years later, Kathryn distinctly remembers a number of racist incidents when she left Buxton and moved to Des Moines. One occurred during high school.
Beverly: There was a white girl that lost her purse, she couldn't find her purse. I was the only black student in that class. And guess what, she told the counselor, I used to remember her name, that I had taken her purse. In fact, she found it later. But do you think she came and said, I'm sorry? Nothing at all.
She says another incident occurred years later.
Beverly: When I worked at the YWCA in Des Moines, Katz’s Drug Store was segregated. Do you remember that or do you? The railroad station was segregated. Then they brought in a little store that sold orange juice and sandwiches. So I was going to lunch and I said oh I think I'll try this place. I went in there and ordered me orange juice and a sandwich. She gave me my orange juice in a paper container and nobody, I was the only black in there, and all the whites had a glass. So, I said to her, why did you give me this drink in the paper? She said, because that is what we do, we don't serve black folks with a glass. I said, thank you, gave it back to her and walked out.
Excerpt from "Searching for Buxton," Produced by The Communication Research Institute of William Penn University, Iowa PBS, 2011